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Editorial: We Have Allowed This Failure For Far Too Long

THE tragedy that saw Byron Ferguson’s plane crash into Bahamian waters – leaving him missing presumed dead – had already exposed some of the failings of our search and rescue capacity. Today the extent to which our nation is ill prepared when it comes to airline safety is laid bare.

Mr Ferguson’s crash took place in November 2018, and it was more than a year later that the final report into that incident was released. That report cited loopholes in the country’s aviation regime – including an absence of a designated search and rescue entity that meets international standards, the failure to set up a rescue co-ordination centre and more. Instead, the search was handled by a mish-mash of different organisations. The defence force, the US Coast Guard, BASRA… many eager helpers but no trained body charged with the task of finding souls whose lives are at risk.

It is little surprise therefore that the search operation seemed such a mess – with civilians taking matters into their own hands to try to find Mr Ferguson when it seemed officials weren’t up to the task.

If that report last month was shocking, then the news in today’s Tribune of just how poorly rated our country is when it comes to aviation safety is an outrage.

Around the world, nations are given a compliance score to show how close they are to the required level of safety oversight. The Bahamas, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) only has a third of the critical elements in place for a safety oversight system. Eight areas are listed as being key areas – and The Bahamas has failings in all eight.

As far as surveillance of the industry goes, The Bahamas has implemented just 2.5 percent of the required level – while only 15.97 percent of its licensing, certification and authorisation obligations are met. We know that latter situation has been a problem for a while – with the government making moves to try to clamp down on hackers – the pilots who take up illegal charters without the proper licences.

The ICAO report goes on to highlight problems over resolution of safety issues and a lack of qualified personnel, while even in the better categories of legislation and operating regulations, the country barely musters more than half the score required.

There are excuses – the audit coming at a time when the Civil Aviation Authority was switching from a government department to a standalone body – but they aren’t good ones.

As the authority’s director general, Captain Charles Beneby, admits, The Bahamas signed up to the ICAO convention 45 years ago. Things didn’t happen overnight to leave us in such a state – but nor can they be allowed to continue to fester a moment longer.

If there is a silver lining, it seems as if Captain Beneby is determined to do what is necessary to raise Bahamian standards – but at the same time, questions should be asked about how we got here. Not by Captain Beneby, who needs to get on with the task at hand of meeting the standards required, but perhaps by a government probe. Who was it who oversaw the mess we find ourselves in, and why wasn’t the proper investment given when needed?

After last month’s crash report, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said he agreed with the criticisms, we hope he will be similarly vocal about the ICAO report.

Facing up to our failings requires honesty. It requires looking at where we’ve gone wrong, and how we got here. Only then can we be clear about how to fix the problems without repeating the same mistakes.

This smells like negligence over many years. This smells like a problem brushed under the carpet or ignored for far too long. Worse, it seems like we have been neglecting things that could have saved lives. We don’t know if matters had been different – if there was a designated search and rescue body with specialist training, for example – whether that would have meant Byron Ferguson might have been saved. We do know that if changes aren’t made then we might be risking lives in the future.

That cannot be allowed to stand. The changes that need to be made must be made – and soon. Too much time has already passed without meeting the standards required. We must not allow any more time – or any more lives – to pass on our watch.

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